Freedom is the word. In fact, it's very much the key element in Underworld Ascendant, the long-awaited successor to the legendary Ultima Underworld series, which those among us of a certain age will likely have played and enjoyed during the early '90s. This ambitious new project - which is going to be published by 505 Games - is being developed by Otherside Entertainment, a team made up of industry veterans who have worked on popular franchises like System Shock, Thief, and Bioshock. Among them, Warren Spector is perhaps the name that you'll have heard before, as he's well respected throughout the industry, and while he has worked on some incredibly important titles (notably the classic generation of immersive sims, including Thief, System Shock, and Deus Ex, but also the likes of Epic Mickey), he has in the past also acted as a producer on the Ultima Underworld series. Spector may be working on System Shock 3 primarily with his team in Austin, but also consults with OtherSide's New England based team headed by Paul Neurath. So, who better than this team of specialists to drive this challenging project in the right direction, especially in view of the fact that almost 25 years have passed since we last saw this genre-defining series?
Recently we were invited to 505's offices to get our hands on a pre-alpha demo of the first-person RPG (the same demo as was shown recently at PAX East in Boston) so as to better understand what kind of foundations the studio is putting down as it looks to give life to the next chapter in the series. Given the importance of the game's legacy to the industry and to the developers themselves, it's clear that the studio is aiming high. In fact, ambition is not a quality that seems in short supply at OtherSide Entertainment, because despite the fact that we experienced an imperfect early build, the studio seems to have some very good ideas as to the direction they want to take this project, ideas that put us in the middle of the action, where the player acts as the fulcrum upon which everything around them is balanced. So far, we like what we've seen.
OtherSide Entertainment has given us a very specific definition of what Underworld Ascendant is, and as far as the studio is concerned it's an immersive sim. The game, in fact, sees players left to roam free in a fantasy world, within which they can do exactly what they want. There's no right or wrong approach; all that matters in Underworld Ascendant is what the player considers the best course of action and, above all, what's most "natural" according to their interpretation of the situation. For that reason, in OtherSide's game there are no pre-defined classes, and instead, each player can create their own unique build. This depends not only on the kind of approach chosen by the player (stealth, magic, combat, etc.) who, from time to time, can change things up according to the way they decide to face a certain situation, but it also on the kind of missions chosen. Naturally, during our short hands-on we couldn't explore this aspect in any depth, but the premise seems very interesting.
In Ascendant we play as Avatar - Ultima's former protagonist - who has to find and save the kidnapped daughter of a baron. Our hero finds himself catapulted into the Stygian Abyss (perhaps the name sounds familiar to you?), an underground world infested with strange and mysterious creatures as well as threatening wildlife that looms large in its narrow corridors. It's an intimidating, claustrophobic place. When we wake up, guided by a voice that prepares us for our adventure, we start to explore the world around us. As explained by Warren Spector himself via the message that introduced us to the demo, in Underworld Ascendant we'll have to unlearn much of what we know from years of playing action-RPGs.
In fact, we're going to have to forget many of the rules that we've learned throughout the years because in Ascendant all you have to do is let yourself be guided by events and situations in the manner that best suits you. In this world where freedom is the point around which the whole experience revolves, many interesting elements come into play which are then cleverly combined with this fundamental foundation. Firstly, physics play an important role in the game, and although Otherside's adventure is set in a fantasy universe, the physics that govern the world around you are absolutely realistic. Suppose we have to lift a wooden box: if it's too heavy, Avatar won't even be able to move it (the weight is revealed via a useful icon on the object as soon as you interact with it). In other words, each object has its own properties, a physicality that influences how we interact with it. For example, as happened in our hands-on session, to activate a pressure-sensitive mechanism in order to open a gate, we had to look for an object heavy enough so that it could keep it pressed down.
Unlearning what we have learned also translates to different approaches when it comes to solving puzzles, and even attacking the monstrous skeletons that block our path. It was interesting how the different journalists who attended the event opted for tactics and techniques that were completely different to ours, and then how much those approaches varied from one to the next, all with the sole purpose of achieving the same goal. The great sense of freedom offered by Underworld Ascendant is undoubtedly one of its greatest strengths and it will surely pique the curiosity of many players, especially those who like to go back and replay scenarios in different ways. The wide variety of options is expanded further by the weapons, spells, and objects that can be found along the way, and we thought it was interesting that you can change your playstyle at any time.
Aesthetically, Underworld Ascendant is an interesting blend of old-school style and more modern design, but at the moment the game is still too early in development to be able to judge in this regard. On top of that, as a result of the fact that the game is still only in pre-alpha, there were some little bugs, enemies offered zero reactivity (those present in the demo were there only for show), and there was a handful of technical issues typical of these types of early builds, which is even more unsurprising when you consider the physics involved.
What we have experienced of Underworld Ascendant so far certainly has us intrigued, and the ambitious target that Otherside Entertainment has set itself, that being its attempt to bring back one of the most iconic franchises in the history of gaming, is undoubtedly noteworthy. The basics seem to be there and the fact that the player has total control over their experience, where they can author almost every single part of their experience, is a good reason to keep this one on your radar.